NZ researchers' 3D-printed face fools phone facial recognition

A team at Auckland University have figured out how to make a 3D print of a face so accurate it can crack a cellphone’s facial recognition security.

And to prove it, the Creative Design Additive Manufacturing Lab printed out a bust of 1News reporter Logan Church, which could successfully break into some, but not all, cell phones that used facial recognition as security.

It started with a high-tech $40,000 Lidar scanner – it can scan a shape by targeting an object with a laser and measuring the time for the light to return to the scanner.

“It's becoming so accessible that the latest iPhones and iPads have lidar scanners in them,” said Dr Juan Schutte, who works at the lab.

That 3D model is then put onto a computer, tidied up, and 3D printed - creating a hyper-realistic real-world model.

And testing it on low-to-mid range phones, it managed to fool facial recognition security (higher-end phones 1News tested were not so easily tricked).

Is it practical for criminals to scan a target’s head, print it out on a $500,000 3D printer, and carry the print around? Of course not.

But it illustrated an issue affecting an increasing number of New Zealanders.

“We are kind of entering this matrix element of how can I guarantee what I'm seeing on a screen or what someone is showing me is actually [what it claims to be],” Schutte said.

1News reporter Logan Church with his lookalike.

And identify theft was a costly problem for New Zealanders – the Department of Internal Affairs estimates the country loses more than $200m a year.

Part of that is due to how vulnerable many of us are online.

So much of our lives are now online and on accessible from mobile phones – everything from our social media accounts to mobile banking.

“We see pretty regularly people's identities or online profiles being used to scam other people out of money or out of information,” said Jordan Heersping of Cert NZ.

“Make sure your phone is up to date,” he suggested.

“It’s also really important to keep your password safe - and critical to have multi-factor authentication where possible as well.”

However, this technology also offered big opportunities too.

“If you think of trauma where you need prosthetics, or you need things that look or mimic like the eventual product - that has huge value,” said Juan Schutte.

“It's not that we are trying to break into phones; we're trying to test the limits of this technology for real-world, human-centric problems we can solve.”